Taking the debate to the community at the 560 Music Center

Eager debate watchers started lining up outside the 560 Music Center in University City before the doors opened at 7 p.m. debate night for the first-ever off-campus public viewing event hosted by Washington University.

The cast of “Of Thee I Sing” provides a preview of its upcoming performance at the community debate event at the 560 Music Center.

“Because of the security precautions around the debate, neighbors and the general public could not experience first hand the debate atmosphere on campus,” said Cheryl Adelstein, director of community relations and local government affairs. “We wanted to share the excitement of the debate with the community.”

Myra Perkins, who identified herself as the “mail lady of U. City” and a former Pine Lawn alderwoman, greeted many of the people at the entrance to the Desmond Lee Auditorium by name and was eager to share her enthusiasm about the debate watch and upcoming election. “We are due for a change, and this will make change at all levels of government, right down to our city halls,” she said.

Perkins, like many of the more than 450 guests, sported Sen. Barack Obama campaign buttons, but gladly added an official “VP Debate” pin — given to all in attendance — to the collection already covering her jacket.

The crowd, which exceeded expectations, was diverse in terms of age and race but united by a keen interest in the debate, the candidates and the issues. Neighbors greeted each other with smiles and hugs under the red, white and blue helium balloons before Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin took center stage on a larger-than-life screen in the auditorium.

“I think people shy away from discussing politics in public,” said Keith Lockhart of Florissant. “This is good idea to bring people together.” Lockhart came with a group of Bank of America colleagues.

University City resident Matthew Feier walked to the debate watch with friends. “I live in the neighborhood,” Feier said. “I wanted to be a part of the spectacle but couldn’t. This is the next best thing to being there.”

Actually, it was better, according to Adelstein, who encouraged the audience to applaud, talk and help themselves to refreshments during the 90-minute debate.

Tirzah Russell, 11, was glued to her seat taking notes on the candidates’ answers. “I’m here to watch the debate and write an essay about the debate for extra credit,” she said.

Tirzah’s mother, Jacqueline Russell, a first-grade teacher at Hamilton Elementary School, said, “I wanted her to have the experience here with other people rather than sitting at home alone. It’s a different feel.”

Pre-debate entertainment was provided by the WUSTL student cast of “Of Thee I Sing,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by George and Ira Gershwin that pokes fun at presidential politics with upcoming performances at Edison Theatre Oct. 24-Nov. 2.

Three faculty members of the Department of Political Science in Arts & Sciences provided post-debate analysis. They were Clarissa Howard, Ph.D., associate professor; Michael Martin, Ph.D., assistant professor; and Victor Levine, Ph.D., professor emeritus.

A small group of visitors from Moscow sat in the back of the auditorium and admitted they were amazed at what they had just witnessed.

“Just the fact you have a free debate is very surprising for Russians,” Igor Kovalev said.

The young man, a legal adviser in the Russian Parliament, and his colleagues studying American politics, had visited Washington, D.C., but found the debate truly monumental.

“To us, it is more important that you can have a debate than who wins,” Kovalev said. “This would never happen in Russia.”

In addition to WUSTL, sponsors of the event were University City, Parkview Gardens Neighbor Association, the Clayton Chamber of Commerce and Skinker-DeBaliviere Community Council.